‘How can I afford to not work on climate change?’ Pact’s Christy Owen fosters sustainability in Southeast Asia and beyond

March 7, 2022
Christy Owen, center right, visits a watershed management project in the Pasuruan region of Indonesia. Credit: USAID Green Invest Asia.

The 2022 theme for International Women’s Day celebrates women and girls around the world who are leading the charge on climate change response for a more sustainable future for all. Pact is recognizing women leaders among our staff who are making a difference. Read about Vanessa Coronado here and Hanta Rabefarihy here.

Christy Owen began working on environmental issues a bit by accident when she took an entry-level project assistant job with a USAID-funded water program after college. In many ways, though, it was a perfect fit.

“My interest in international development started at home,” Owen recalls. Her parents spent time with the Peace Corps in Liberia. “I was expected not only to find my place in the world, but to figure out what I could do to make it better for all who shared it with me.”

After traveling during high school and earning a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies and a master’s focused on public policy, communications and livelihoods, she accepted the water program job. That was more than 20 years ago, and ever since, Owen has been almost exclusively focused on programs that support biodiversity conversation, natural resource management and climate change adaption and mitigation. Today, she is Pact’s Thailand country director and chief of party for USAID Green Invest Asia, which helps agriculture and forestry businesses in Southeast Asia to improve their sustainable commodity production and sourcing, as well as manage environmental risks. USAID Green Invest Asia helps investors identify profitable, environmentally-astute agriculture and forestry companies, improves companies’ investment readiness to qualify for climate finance, and partners with multinationals to measure and reduce their carbon footprints.    

Before this, Owen led Mekong Partnership for the Environment, a USAID-funded Pact project that supported constructive engagement among governments, business and civil society to ensure responsible development in the Lower Mekong region.

Reflecting on why she finds environment work so meaningful, Owen says, “My experience with communities, governments and the private sector has shown how the natural world is so important to our lives, yet as a global community we have managed to continuously undervalue and disrespect it. This is having real-world impacts now, in my lifetime, and will definitely create a different future for my son. So the question for me isn’t so much why I’ve chosen this space, but how can I afford to not work on protecting the environment and reducing the impacts of climate change?”

One realm where Owen has made important headway has been helping people who traditionally may be thought of as adversaries to become partners for change. In the South Caucuses, she was part of a team that brought representatives from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan together to work on improving transboundary management of the Kura and Aras Rivers – even though Armenia and Azerbaijan have a long, fraught history as neighbors.

More recently, in the Mekong Region, she led a team that facilitated a transboundary working group of government and civil society representatives to develop guidelines for public participation in Environmental Impact Assessment. When this idea was first put forward, a common reaction was that it was crazy; never would civil society and government from all five countries within the Mekong River basin come together and work collaboratively. Yet they did, and as a result, a guideline was published that influenced policy in two countries and has since been taken up by the UN Environment Programme and the UN Human Rights Commission.

Similarly, Owen and her team at USAID Green Invest Asia are proving that corporate competitors can become collaborators. This year, they brokered an unprecedented tripartite partnership with the world’s two largest coffee buyers, Nestlé and JDE Peet’s, to co-finance a carbon footprint assessment of Robusta coffee cultivation in two key sourcing areas of Vietnam and Indonesia. These areas cover more than 1 million hectares that produce a quarter of global coffee supply. The resulting greenhouse gas emissions benchmark – needed to measure companies’ progress on climate commitments – will be the first standardized method to assess emissions by and for the coffee sector in Southeast Asia.

This kind of unexpected collaboration and progress is one of many reasons Owen is hopeful about the planet’s future. Under USAID Green Invest Asia, Owen says, her team has seen growing demand for the project’s services and increased numbers of corporates participating in activities, and has caught snippets of its work in the language of third parties. This tells her that they are helping to influence a critical conversation, including beyond Southeast Asia.  

She also points to big gains in renewable energy and in moving the dialogue around climate change from solely the domain of the environmentalists into the board rooms of major corporations and investment houses.

“While the outcomes of Paris COP 21 and Glasgow COP 26 certainly could have been more robust in terms of country commitments, they are potentially game-changing for corporate engagement. I see change in the form of the increased activity to establish voluntary carbon markets where carbon is valued and traded. I’m also heartened by the actions taken by youth around the globe in organizing and advocating for the environment.”

She has also seen more women taking up leadership roles in the effort against climate change. “I believe having diverse voices at the table ultimately leads to better, more sustainable outcomes,” Owen says.

“People don’t change because we tell them to. Change happens when people understand the connection between their future happiness and the condition of animals, oceans and forests.”

Despite these bright spots, she acknowledges that deep-rooted challenges remain in the form of corruption and inequality. “It’s a nasty undercurrent that we see in violence against forest protectors, in confiscated animal products from the illegal wildlife trade, and in other actions that illustrate the continued power held by a few over the many.”

She says successfully responding to climate change and other major environmental challenges will take our best collective effort, and she offers three points of advice for colleagues around the world working to make a difference. First, Owen says, we must be patient and persistent. “There is a tendency in development programs to want change now, but for the environment space, and particularly climate change, reversing the damage takes time. We are playing the long game and quick wins can be distracting for many stakeholders.”

Second, we must focus on closing the gap between science and policy, which is especially problematic in relation to climate change.

And we must connect to people’s lives.

“People don’t change because we tell them to,” Owen says. “They change because they have an incentive. Most people don’t name the environment or climate change as their top priority, because it can be hard to see, because it seems unfathomable that a forest or a river that has always been a part of their lives might no longer exist in their lifetime. Yet from indigenous communities to global consumers, people rely on natural products and ecosystem services for their livelihoods, the energy they consume, their physical and mental health, and many other things on which we place tremendous monetary value. Change happens when people understand the connection between their future happiness and the condition of animals, oceans and forests.”